Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Never-Never Land

what if?

We set off to our final destination, the Himalayas. Himachal Pradesh is the state, and McLeod Ganj is our destination. It's near Dharmasala, which is where the Dali Lami and many Tibetans hang out. Dharmasala is the capital in exile of Tibet. Isn't the Wikipedia cool? You learn all kinds of interesting things. The Dali Lami's full name is actually Jetsun Jamphel Ngawang Lobsang Yeshe Tenzin Gyatso. How do you like that?

There is, of course, a bit of space in between us and Dharmasala. We're two states away, in Rajasthan. And we have 10 days left, in our trip, or so, before giant steel birds swoop onto Delhi and fly with us back to California.

How far is Dharmasala from Jaipur, where our camel trek ended? How far do we have to go? Far. It's almost two full days of travel. Whatever! We're hard core. First, we travel by bus from Jaipur back to Jodhpur, which takes up almost a day with travel. Again we meet everyone, and I find people can be disarmingly sweet, warm, direct and open. I talk to a young Indian muslim guy, who I found to be incredibly open hearted. We are all brothers, he tells me. We talk about all kinds of things.

We arrive back in Jodhpur, in the evening, and have a few hours to kill before we board our 24+ hour train from Jodhpur to Patankot, from which we'll take a bus to McLeod Ganj. We decide to go out to a posh Indian restaurant. People often ask me if the Indian food in India is better than in the United States. This is an interesting question. If you eat at someone's home, or have homemade food in India, it's going to be, almost always, better than any Indian food you can find anywhere else, in India or in the US. I confirmed for Shalin, after traveling around India, for example, that his family has the best chai in the world. It just doesn't get better. The truth about restaurants, though, is that there's a huge range in food quality, and the best Indian places I'm familiar with (Vik's and Udupi in Berkeley) are pretty much near the top of the food scale anywhere we've been. It is possible to find higher quality food in India. I've had dosas, idli, and other items whose quality was so high, that I will be lucky to have such a thing again in my life. But it's really easy to find a lot of worse food. On this train we're about to board we have cold daal and chapati to prevent starvation. And, of course, the main thing we are missing in the US is the incredible variety of cuisines one finds in India. Kerala's food was quite different, and impressed us with its awesome coconut flavors. The diversity is more than just geographic. If you go to the street, where one is more likely to get sick, there's an incredible variety of non-fancy foods that are pretty unbeatable. And then there are the wacky fusion foods, the Indian-ified version of Chinese food. North America has its version of Chinese food. The Indians' version of Chinese food is pretty awesome. And pretty spicy. Imagine, Schechuan Kofta. While some of the best food I've had is cheapest, one's odds can improve, at times, by throwing a lot of money at the problem in a posh place.

So, back to our epic journey. The train is, naturally, super late and we board late at night. We meet, on the platform, some nice German college students on their way to McLeod Ganj. On this 24+ hour train ride, a wide cast of characters is met. I drink with a bunch of Indian MBA students on some kind of trip. We hang out with a super intelligent and gentle army officer, who borrows Difficult Conversations from Alex, reads it for quite a while, and exclaims what we already know, that it's an incredible book. We become friends with Hannah, the German backpacker on her way to McLeod Ganj. Ladies try to sell us socks. We pass through Punjab, which is gold and sunny.

you and me

Finally, we arrive in Patankot, where Hannah is reunited with her Nepalese boyfriend, Rohan, whom she met on her last trip to McLeod Ganj. It's become night again, and since we're so late, our 3 hour bus ride to Dharmasala might not be so convenient, and nobody wants to stay here. We eat a real meal, finally, and make our way to the bus station. Luckily we have Hannah, whose done this before, and Rohan, who speaks the language, to tag a long with. Of course, the buses we want have left already. So, we buy tickets for a bus in a few hours, and cool our heals. When the bus comes, we board, only to find that everyone else has assigned seats and we don't. I return to the counter and ask the seller/conductor what's going on. He looks down at a scrap of paper, which I recognize as a seating chart with all the seats taken, and back up at me. We both realize he's made a mistake. Sorry, he says. He gets on the bus and starts making some changes. Eventually, we all end up with some kind of seats, albeit bad ones. I don't know if there are good seats. Rohan, Hannah, and I end up squeezed in to the back row with four other people. Sitting not quite in my lap, on my right, is a well dressed middle aged Indian man who is totally plastered. He smells like so much booze, and doesn't look totally OK. I feel a little like a guy trapped in a small room with no exit, a raging bonfire beside me. If this man can't keep everything done properly, then things won't be pretty. And it's a 3 hour bumpy, Himalaya mountain climbing bus ride on Indian mountain roads. Awesome. In front of us are a metric ton more people with all kinds of luggage. We are absolutely crushed. In front of us is a plump Indian woman who really wants a seat. Eventually, she negotiates and gains a small purchase on the seat (with 6 people on it already), and somehow manages to squeeze in with us. A good time is had by all, except Rohan, who now also looks sick. He wants to climb onto the bus, to ride on the roof, where he thinks he'll be less car sick. Lots of people were up there earlier. The conductor tells him it's a bad idea, since we'll be going under lots of hard to see low hanging power lines. I keep asking the drunk man "Ti-ke?," (ok?) and he keeps tellling me not to worry about it. I love how everyone is so good natured and kind despite the discomfort. It is how it is.

Shalin calls the Himalayas, where we're going, the rooftop of the world. We go up and up, towards what must be heaven's floor. Knock knock knocking. Finally, we arrive in our last stop, at around midnight, and hire a car to take us up the mountain to McLeod Ganj. Rohan calls his friends from my cell phone and finds us food to eat and a place to stay. It's slightly after midnight.

We have spaghetti plates at Carpe Diem, which is one of the best restaurants I've ever eaten at. The spaghetti is unbelievable. They make the pasta, sauces, everything from scratch on the premises. Olive oil is imported from out of India. And the food is unbelievable. The restaurant is manned by a bunch of teenage and twenty something Nepalese guys. It's late, the place is closing, and everyone is just hanging out, watching tv, drinking, eating, and cleaning up. It has a kind of permanent, relaxed, college student party vibe. I feel like we've wandered into Never-Never Land, a fairy tale place where boys don't ever have to grow up.

carpe diem kitchen

The next day we return to Carpe Diem for breakfast. We return there often. The food and folks are really good. Above, a peek into the kitchen. There's a pizza oven on the roof. They do awesome breakfasts, Thai food, and Indian food. All kinds of food. Muesli is made on the premises.


From the restaurant rooftop, which is the proper place to have breakfast, we hear the sounds of chanting and protest from below. People explain that all the Tibetan shops are closed, on strike, and the Tibetans are protesting China's treatment of Tibetans in Tibet. This means no momo for you or me. The sound of the protest is very interesting. Huge parts of the march are monks, all dressed in saffron robes. They have a sing song chant that sounds quite nice. As you listen, and the people pass by, the pitch and timbre of the song transforms into something more ephemeral, but equally strong, and one realizes it is now a bunch of nuns, similarly dressed, also with shaved heads, singing in higher, feminine voices. And there are many ordinary Tibetans and people protesting, too, as you can see above.

There are many Nepalese people here, working, running shops, and so on. On the whole, they are some of the sweetest, and most gentle people we've met on the trip. It's quite easy to tell the Indians, Tibetans, foreigners, and Nepalese apart, and this gives McLeod Ganj an interesting feeling. A feeling of embedding, of people who are simultanously out of place, in different worlds, and worlds within worlds, but in exactly the right place. This is India, and yet somehow the Indians feel as if they are in the minority, guests of some other place. It's a bit unclear.

We take a tour around our new hood. It's kind of a rambling, built up touristy sort of place in the middle of some marvelous scenery. The built up of it all was surprising, and not surprising.

tibet area

We walk around, and converge on some Tibetan temples and protests.

free tibet man

Free Tibet Man. Possibly the world's first Tibetan superhero. I'm not an expert, so I can't say for sure.

chain hunger strike

Monks participate in a chain hunger strike.

tibet stones

Near the monastery, an array of carved, painted stones.

tibetan temple

Back in the center of McLeod Ganj is a lovely Tibetan temple.


Tibetans are into prayer wheels. Prayers are inscribed on the wheels, and their rotation is somehow isomorphic to saying the prayer. I love the idea of mechanical religious devices. Technology used to assist and amplify prayers and blessings. Rationality and mysticism belief wrapped up into one tidy package. The wikipedia lists water, electric, wind, and heat powered prayer heels. The wikipedia claims that animated gif prayer wheels, also apparently count, but they don't have a citation for it.

turn turn

Inside the temple, a woman turns a really big prayer wheel.

mcleod road

McLeod is a bit of a tourist zoo. Not quite the mountain wonderland you might have had in mind. But nothing in India ever matches expectations. Many shops have loads of Kashmeri stuff. Why is this? The Kashmeris seem to have some of the most impressive handicrafts in the world. One explanation for this is that they still practice crafts from the height of the Persian empire. In the top left of the picture above you can see a Tibet flag. Some people have Tibet '08 olympic exercise sweat suits, not pictured.

mcleod ganj by day

This photo and the next are not mine. You can see how built up this place is, and this photo is of a pretty neat looking part of the city and mountain. Architectural chaos.

mcleod ganj by night

At night, I think McLeod is much more beautiful. You don't see the harsh city on mountain contrast. Instead, many candle lights seem to tumble down the landscape, an organic cascade of city lights. It is as if the city is one single complicated, rambling building which traces out the contours of the mountain. Something like howl's moving castle. I've never seen anything like it. It's hard to get this feeling from the photo, though. You just have to go there, I guess.

tea shop

We set out for Bhagsu, a nearby village. We've been tipped off to the presence of a cool guest house there. Also, there's a hike to a waterfall we want to do. On the path to Bhagsu, a typical tea shop, one of many in the area.

mcleod ganj

The path winds along the mountain, giving nice views of the area.

mcclod ganj from bhagsu road

These are some of the Tibetan prayer flags, perhaps the wind powered cousins of the prayer wheels.

road to bhagsu

Finally, we arrive in the village of Bhagsu.


One of the many terrifying animals we meet, tame, and live to tell about. This wild monster had been terrifying the local population until we got the situation under control.

near bhola house

Bhagsu seems to be a bit more our speed. Certain parts of it still feel very village like, and a bit more serene than McLeod. One also wonders... is this still India? It feels so different than what we've seen in the rest of the trip.

This is definitely the kind of place you can spend serious time in. I think my next trip to India will focus on the north and Nepal. There's still so much to see. Tourists live here for extended periods of time. Really good food abounds, and international food, and goods like Toblerone are easy to come by. One of the best parts about backpacking is meeting other travellers, the rest of the international middle class. Folks from Trinidad with awesome accents, people from england, Israel, Europe, and from a relatively broad range of backgrounds. There are so many stories to hear.

bhola hood see ya

One of the neighbors of Bhola guest house. We were told it was located by the Chabad house, but it seems the Chabadniks have moved to Dharmakot, another nearby village.

bhola house

One of a handful of handmade signs around Bhola house. This one says, "The Jewish heart / close close... Bhola :)"

bhola me oh my

This is the view down the front of the house. We decide to move here the next day. Today we are hiking to Bhagsu's waterfall. Certain risks must be taken.

falls hike waterfall

There it is, the falls from below. Some people might think we are foolish for attempting such a simple day hike, but we are nothing but. We are seriously committed to our adventuring and playfulness.

oh yeah

Here is some photographic documentation of our fair travelers, sitting in some kind of niche on the path.

view from falls

The view of the setting sun from the top is really nice.


Here is Alex, perched on some rocks.


We walk back along the cobble stone path back to Bhagsu, and Alex shows off his incredible muscles, whose exact size are hard to discern at this distance, in this light.


On the road back from Bhagsu to McLeod we sit and chat with a monk. It's cold, but we all hang out, as it's really interesting, and the sunset is nice. If I remember right, he's originally from Inner Mongolia, and now lives in South India, in Mangalore (I think), where there are Buddhist monasteries and a big Tibetan Buddhist community. He's visiting McLeod Ganj to study Buddhism in one of the monasteries/schools here. What I remember best about him, though, was how playful and friendly he was.

bhola time

The next day Alex and I move to Bhola House in Bhagsu. Bhola house is tended by a mother, who doesn't seem to speak English, and three incredibly sweet sisters. Samu, Phuja, and Joti.

youngest sister

Here is Joti, the youngest, working on her high school chemistry.

alex in bhola

Alex chills out on the upstairs balcony, right outside our room. It's a simple guest house (outside bathroom -- brr!), but it's so peaceful and warm. It also feels like something is missing, like one gear is out of place. And who is Bhola? Strangely, we're the only ones there, since it's early in the season. They ask if we're Israeli, since most of their guests usually are. When we sign into the guest book, we see we're the first people to stay this season, and indeed, most past guests are from Israel.

Shalom la Malkah

Bhagsu has more Israelis than McLeod Ganj, it seems. We eat at a popular Israeli guest house in Bhagsu called Sky Pie. They have Hello to the Queen on the menu, also known as Shalom la Malkah on many menus. This is a life changing food, and a turning point in my trip. I first encountered this mythical dessert in Hampi, when some French ladies were eating some, and shared a bite with me. That bite altered my brain chemistry in some kind of a
fundamental way. The next day, my last night in Hampi, I ordered the dessert, which cost more than my meal, since I wanted a bit more if it. I was totally full, but wanted just a few spoonfuls, since even that was worth it. There was, of course, nobody around to share it with. The French women had moved on. Normally, I'm very good at controlling how much I eat, since the discomfort of being too full really bothers me. When food, however, reaches a certain quality threshold, I am tipped, and my appetite knows no bounds. Despite stopping multiple times, and realizing I shouldn't eat more, my cybernetic food consumption governing circuits were overloaded, evidently fried the night before, and I finished the whole thing. And I've never been happier. I am a changed man. Where have you been all my life?

So, Alex and Yotam arrive in Goa, and I try to tell them about this magical food. I extol its virtues to them, wave my arms, but words are not enough. We find a place in Goa with the item, but it is nothing but a pale approximation, prepared incorrectly, an insult to the very idea of hellos, queens, and hellos to the queens. Research indicates that the dessert travels mostly where Israeli backpackers travel, and it isn't an Israeli dish, but rather some kind of munchie satisfying fusion cuisine. Finally we find it on the menu, here, after months of searching, and Alex begins to understand.

What, exactly, is in a Hello to the Queen? You take Parle-G cookies, and crumble them into a crust at the bottom of a big bowl. The bowl must be large. Then, you add a serious quantity of vanilla ice cream, and embed some banana chunks inside. Finally, you bury the whole confection in a molten lake of chocolate fudge. Money back guarantee.

But we are here for than just food. We are here to hike, to go where we have not gone before. To Triund, for example, at almost three kilometers elevation. While the waterfall hike was a half day trip, Triund is a full day hike. Not super hard, but not easy, either.

holi me

Holi, the Hindu color festival, is coming up. People will get each other really colorful. Oh wait, it's today.

gotcha gotchme

Above, happy Holi casualties.


We go up and up and up. And up. This is an empty house. Take note -- this theme will recur in a later post.

tea house to triund

Halfway to the top we encounter a fully stocked shop. Just about everything you could want, right now, is here.

above tea house 1

Above the shop, some pack animals carry people's stuff. They obviously aren't as strong as us. Or maybe they are going on a longer trip. The people, I mean, not the animals.

view from triund hike

Somewhere on the way up we saw views like this. We started somewhere below. We aren't at the top yet.

big perty flower

We continue to go up... and find things big and small.

snowball fight! almost there

There are no wild ponies. But it is getting colder, and there is snow to be found and snowball fights to be had.

triund top

Finally, we reach the pass, and have arrived at Triund, tired and happy.


We understood that people would have food and chai for us at the top, so we didn't bring food. We're hungry, and order lunch from this guy. He's totally nice, and makes some mean daal.

happiest puppy evah

He's got a cute dog, who must be the happiest puppy ever.

monk tea

I have some chai with some monks who are also out on a day hike. The monks are everywhere. I think they are something like really wise college students. They are here to study, learn, and enjoy life, but probably don't get into all the trouble that most college students do.


The monks are from Tibet, Inner Mongolia, and elsewhere, and live in various parts of India. In McLeod, you're likely to be sitting next to monks in internet cafes. That's the kind of place this is.

its the top

As you can see from this picture and its background, you can go up, but you can always go higher.

alex hanging

Alex chats with some Indian students.

i would like to have a word

One of them tells a funny story. An Englishman visits India, an atheist writer, presumably after the British have left. When he returns, he says that he didn't believe in God, but now he does, as there's no other explanation for how India could possibly function.


Here we are, standing on the roof of the world. Tibetan prayer flags overlook the world, promoting peace and wisdom. The wind, by blowing through the flags, will spread purification and blessings to everybody.


Here is a high altitude shiva temple. You can't see them in the pictures, but the entire mountainside is covered in little yellow butterflies. Although exhausted, we're floating away from earth, carried by fluttering yellow wings. We're tired, it's getting late, and the sun is starting to set. We have a couple hours of down hiking to do, and we decide to start moving back so we don't have to hike back down the mountain at night.

view from dharmakot

On the way back we take a slightly different, easier, way that we failed to find going up. We come back through Dharmakot, the other small village near McLeod Ganj. Dharmakot stands at the top of the valley that Bhagsu lies at the bottom of. We have to hike down this valley back to our guest house.


We pass through some cute village houses on the way back down.


A little girl sits on the steps of a building.

goat me

This is some kind of olympic goat milk competition. They come in 100, 500, and 1000 meter events.

hike to dharmakot

The next day we hike up to Dharmakot, to explore some more. Dharmakot is where the Chabad house is, the Israelis hang, and is definitely the most chill area around McLeod Ganj. Bhagsu, it turns out, is quite the Punjabi party town. Our place is generally quiet, though.

runch lunch at dharmakot

We find a guest house to have lunch in, and I locate a place to take cooking places from. Purim is coming up, and we locate the Chabad house, where the party at. We will return.

prayer flags

Alex and I stomp around and find more Tibetan prayer flags...


...and a nice sunset.

stand back

Here I am, or rather, my momo is, being cooked in my one on one cooking class. My teacher is Rina, and has really good kitchen Hebrew. She's taught enough Israelis how to cook that it's easier for her to teach me kitchen stuff in Hebrew than in English. So, I end up taking a cooking and Hebrew class from an Indian woman. Awesome.

the cook

Here she is, demonstrating how to roll out momo pastry shells. She claims she can make momos better than the Tibetans. I won't be able to find out, will I?

the cook?

Here I am, threatening the photographer with a knife. Stand back, I say! Over two days, we make dosas, momos, jeera rice, carrot halva, and sambar. Rina finds out I'm American and tries to get me to buy into some real estate project. I politely decline. Multiple times.


This is the guest house kitchen, and the family is all around. Here is a kid looking up the staircase into the kitchen.

purim princess purim princess no. 2

We return to Dharmakot for Purim. To explain a bit of what you're seeing, you need to know that people dress up, Halloween style, especially Israelis, for Purim. Above, two of the Rabbi's daughters.


That's the Rabbi reading with a carrot as a reading pointer. Check out his mad style.


It's a huge house, and everybody sits on cushions all over the floor.

uri smiles

So, this guy shows up at our guest house from Israel. He's basically the second set of guests for the season, and he's definitely been here before. He knows the family, and they're super happy to see him. He says he got a ride from Bhola to the house. Again, Bhola... What is Bhola? Who is Bhola?

Of course, we introduce ourselves to one another. His name is Uri. Then he says to me "Chaim, I have a funny story for you. I know your family." He looks at me, and I look at him, thinking. He continues, "when I was 10, I stayed with your family in West Virginia." Sounds plausible, since I'm from West Virginia, and there aren't many Israelis there. "Your father's name is Aryeh." Ok, that's kind of weird. He tells me his father's name, and it's all clear. My dad and his dad know each other from the Technion, an Israeli university.

What's also funny, and he doesn't remember, is that five years earlier we stayed with him and his family in Israel, and Uri had just returned from India. He gave us information about where to go and what to do. That trip didn't go so well. And here we are, completing our trip, and running into him here. Small world.

Ever wonder why people travel in India so long? You meet many long term travelers. Little known fact, but it's the speed of food service. It's slow. Once we ate at a restaurant and the lady told us it would be slow, is that ok? Of course it is, I told her, we've been traveling in India for months, and waiting 10 minutes to order, and 45 minutes for food is par for the course. We're used to it. Then we waited. And waited. Waited some more. Dishes came from the kitchen -- individual plates -- an appetizer, a soup, a salad -- once every twenty minutes. And there were probably 15 outstanding plates to be prepared for all the guests in the dining room. We ordered four things, and there were other tables of really unhappy looking people around. It took us probably two hours start to finish. The moral of the story is that if an Indian restaurant owner tells you it's going to be slow, it's going to be incomprehensibly slow.

Thanks for tuning in this week to Phases Crossed. We hope to see you in one of our two remaining editions. Grand adventures are still to be had. Beverages consumed. Buses taken. Books read. Elephants hunted. Snarks realized. Stay tuned!